IT’S indicative of the intrigue in aspiring steeplechaser superstar Thistlecrack that today’s appearance at Newbury will upstage the 60th and final running of the historic Hennessy Gold Cup as jump racing’s longest-running sponsorship comes to an end.
Yet expectations in the horse, trained by Colin Tizzard and the mount of Tom Scudamore, are so high that the World Hurdle hero is favourite for next March’s Cheltenham Gold Cup after two races over larger obstacles.
Nearly foot perfect on his chase debut at Chepstow, the exuberance of the horse’s jumping at Cheltenham a fortnight ago – both breathtaking and foolhardy at the first ditches he encountered – left questions to be answered about the wisdom of aiming this first season novice at jump racing’s blue riband race where his rivals will include stablemate Cue Card.
Assuming Thistlecrack beats his four rivals in the Grade Two bet365 Novices’ Chase – and there are no guarantees after Warren Greatrex’s highly-touted One Track Mind made an errant chasing debut at Newbury yesterday – connections will then contemplate their options.
The likelihood is they will avoid a clash with Cue Card in Boxing Day’s King George Chase at Kempton and look to put down a marker in the Grade One Kauto Star Novices’ Chase on the undercard, though the ambition of Tizzard – and lucky owners John and Heather Snook – should not be discounted.
With few doubts about the horse’s stamina ever since Scudamore replaced Aidan Coleman in the saddle 18 months ago following the latter’s inexplicable decision to ride another horse, Tizzard is even more bullish after a successful schooling session over fences.
“Last Saturday Tom Scudamore came in and schooled him,” said Tizzard. “It was the first time we’d actually been able to do it on the grass with him, which is what I’d been desperate to do.
“I wanted to get him jumping upsides other horses at speed, because in two races he hasn’t really had to do that yet. Everything went perfectly, he was upsides Native River and they both jumped super.
“They really got motoring and it should have sharpened him up. This is obviously another step up the ladder but I’m keen to get races into him. I don’t want to look beyond this yet, though.”
Tizzard’s star has scared off most meaningful opposition at Newbury, although champion trainer Paul Nicholls does send Cheltenham Festival winner Ibis Du Rheu into battle.
It’s also entirely feasible that Tizzard saddles his first and last winner of the Hennessy, an illustrious three and a quarter mile handicap won by National Hunt titans like Arkle, Burrough Hill Lad and Denman.
He’s double-handed with Thistlecrack’s gallops rival Native River and Theatre Guide who were both second at Wetherby last month.
Native River, who won the Grade One Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree last spring, ran on with gusto to finish second in the West Yorkshire Hurdle under champion jockey Richard Johnson who is relishing the chance to land a Hennessy.
As for Paddy Brennan’s mount Theatre Guide, the horse had a wind op in the summer and his comeback race over fences at Wetherby was over a significantly shorter trip.
Yet, while Tizzard cannot split his pair, Johnson’s confidence in Native River’s credentials is emphatic.
He said: “In the nicest way, he’s one-paced and he keeps galloping – he jumps and gallops, and that’s his forte. At Aintree that’s what he showed, and I thought he ran a really nice race over hurdles at Wetherby. That was definitely the best hurdle run of his life and he’s only six, you forget that. There’s every chance he’s probably improved a bit and Colin’s horses couldn’t be in better form.”
Significantly, Johnson believes the biggest danger could be Un Temps Pour Tout who won the French Champion Hurdle under North Yorkshire’s James Reveley before winning at the Cheltenham Festival. The David Pipe-trained contender made a winning comeback over hurdles at Aintree and, ironically, is the mount of the aforementioned Tom Scudamore.
Yet, while Tizzard and Scudamore will be the friendliest of Hennessy rivals, one senses that both will be happy to leave Newbury with Thistlecrack’s unbeaten record preserved.